Cancer

How Radiation Therapy Taught Me To Meditate

They say it takes 21 days to build a habit like mindfulness. My six weeks of radiation therapy gave me that, and then some.

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I tried so many times in my life to meditate.

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I used to visualize myself in the lotus position at perfect peace with my thumb and forefinger pinched artistically and resting on my knees, a serene expression on my face. Reality, though, is different. During my actual attempts to meditate, I’d set a timer, force myself to sit up straight, and beg my brain to calm itself. A split second later, my to-do list would amp up even more than usual. The drip of a nearby faucet would sound like explosions instead of a minor irritation. Waiting for calm in meditation was like waiting for a treat to heat up in the microwave: seconds ticked by slowly.

Then, my husband found a lump on my breast, as hard and firm as an almond, and I was given three months to live unless I got immediate intervention. Strange to say, my cancer—and subsequent radiation therapy— put me inadvertently on the path to finally learning a skill in mindfulness that had eluded me most of my life.

At the time, my family lived in a rural town with nine hundred people. There was a post office, a saloon, a general store, and spectacular views, but no oncology center. My only option was to travel hundreds of miles for treatment so I packed up the car and headed to the city.

With a few mishaps, and with the nearby support of my family, I made it through chemo and surgery. But for radiation therapy, the last leg of my marathon, I’d need to live away from them, since the treatment was daily and it was too far to drive every day. The evening before my first appointment, my husband and our small daughter waved goodbye to me on the sidewalk. I watched them in my rear view mirror, rolled down the window, and waved back. As soon as I turned the corner, though, I pulled over and wept. Bald, skinny, and exhausted, I didn’t know how I’d get through the next month and a half without them.

Strange to say, my cancer—and subsequent radiation therapy— put me inadvertently on the path to finally learning a skill in mindfulness that had eluded me most of my life.

The next morning, I stood in an elevator feeling gravity and heartache pull me down, deep into the bowels of the hospital where windows give way to cold fluorescents. Muted hallways led to a sterile locker room where I stripped off my clothes, slipped into a robe, and waited for my turn.  What I remember most about that experience is the profound silence of the room, the sensation of aloneness and the realization that my mind was the only tool I had to help me endure. 

A tech in a navy blue jacket led me into an enormous cold space with thick cement walls and a door that felt like a bank vault. I climbed naked onto the mold someone had made just for me and arranged my body in the awkward position it required. Pink stirrups held my hands over my head, and a giant machine with a long mechanical arm loomed over my body.

On my skin, seven pin-prick-sized tattoos told this machine where to aim its healing lights. The tech exited, and there I was, just my brain, this machine, and me, and I willed myself to be at peace.

Radiation is surreal. The ambiance is equal parts pre-historic and futuristic. It is at once collaborative and lonely, peaceful and violent.

Radiation is surreal. The ambiance is equal parts pre-historic and futuristic. It is at once collaborative and lonely, peaceful and violent. It is absolute privacy and an absolute lack of privacy. But for me, it was also a gift.  Radiation forced me to surrender. Figuratively and literally, it pressed me into my utter dependence, a quality I like to deny. “This is what you’re doing today,” it said. “You’re going to be quiet and still.”

Over an intercom system, technicians sometimes gave me perfunctory instructions. “Hold your breath,” a disembodied voice would say. “Release your breath,” it would tell me a minute later. In this way, I became keenly aware of my breathing, a critical component of mediation. And then I would find myself experiencing what I’d never been able to find before: a mindfulness practice.

It sounds insane, but I came to look forward to my daily date with the table, for that moment of relinquishment, of letting go. In embracing my helplessness, I acquired power. Radiation helped me awaken a part of myself that I didn’t know was asleep, and that awakening changed my life. Somewhere in that process, without even realizing it, I learned to meditate.

Radiation helped me awaken a part of myself that I didn’t know was asleep, and that awakening changed my life. Somewhere in that process, without even realizing it, I learned to meditate.

Experts say it takes 21 days to build a habit. My six weeks of radiation helped me form a habit that has stayed with me, and it remains a lasting gift. I don’t need to be in the lotus position. My fingers don’t need to be artfully arranged, and I don’t need the blinking red and blue lights of the life-saving machine that zapped my cancer away. 

It still seems like it takes forever for my treats to heat up in the microwave. But getting to a meditative state? That’s easy. It just takes practice, or in my case, a daily dose of radiation.

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Folks is proud to be partnered with Inspire, the world’s leading healthcare social network. If you are dealing with a health condition mentioned in this article, register and connect with other people who understand and can help on Inspire.

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